Crime & Courts

Archive | Many cold cases aren't being reviewed for DNA matches

For two years, Aiken detectives chased hundreds of leads in their hunt for the killer of Jessica Lynn Carpenter. They got nowhere.

The 17-year-old was raped and stabbed at her Crosland Park home Aug. 4, 2000, just days before she was to begin her senior year at Aiken High School.

A DNA test ultimately cracked the case. It was South Carolina's first big case to be solved using an offender database, but it's an exception rather than the rule.

For police agencies nationwide, the emergence of DNA testing in the late 1980s has been a sword to convict the guilty and a shield to exclude the innocent.

But South Carolina's database has gotten relatively little use to solve cases like Carpenter's slaying.

In the past two years, the approximately 300 local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina have sent SLED only about 300 cases in which there is no suspect, despite several requests by SLED, records show.

But thousands of crimes statewide over the past 10 years have gone unsolved, SLED records show. For example, there have been nearly 17,000 reported rapes but only about 6,400 arrests.

SLED records don't specify whether crimes are unsolved because of a lack of a suspect or a lack of evidence. But DNA evidence often is available in rape cases.

Aiken County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dwayne Courtney, who was a supervisor on the Carpenter case when he was with the Aiken city police department, said he is "amazed" by the low number of cold cases submitted to SLED.

"If you've got them, you should be submitting them," he said. "DNA is the latest and greatest tool offered to law enforcement. It's the best thing to come along since fingerprints."

Through March, records show, SLED had analyzed 199 of the 315 so-called "no-suspect" cases submitted by local agencies - cases in which police hope for a match because they don't have a suspect. Of those, DNA matches were made in 24 cases. SLED doesn't always track the number of arrests local agencies make because of its lab work.

In all no-suspect cases since 2000, 90 matches have been recorded with SLED's database, while 27 more had been made as of April after SLED sent samples to the FBI's DNA database, which contains about 1.7 million profiles.

Many police departments say they don't have many old, no-suspect cases with DNA evidence. Until several years ago, SLED had no way of making matches in those cases and didn't want to collect evidence in them. A lack of storage space for evidence that might yield DNA has been a problem, they said.

BIG DATABASES, LITTLE USE

The situation is different for more recent crimes.

Previously, state law required all adult and juvenile offenders convicted of violent or sex crimes to give DNA samples before they were released from prison, probation or parole. But a new law this year will expand the database to included all convicted felons.

Through March, SLED's database contained the DNA profiles of 25,374 convicted criminals and 1,087 samples from unknown offenders.

The 17-employee laboratory spends most of its time analyzing samples in cases with suspects, said Lt. Ira Jeffcoat, who oversees the DNA lab. Last year, it handled 1,575 such cases, including 770 rapes and 254 homicides.

The 315 no-suspect cases are being processed with a $445,000 federal grant. SLED estimates it could analyze up to 500 cases in one year under the grant.

Catherine Sanders, a spokeswoman at the federal Office of Justice Programs in Washington, D.C., which provided the SLED grant, said the number of cold cases submitted so far "seems small to me."

Like South Carolina, neighboring states haven't been using their DNA databases much in solving no-suspect cases.

North Carolina, which maintains a 42,000-sample database, didn't start a pilot program to analyze unsolved rape cases until late last year, said Noelle Talley, an N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman. Through April, it had begun to analyze 44 cases out of about 6,000, she said.

As of February, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had analyzed about 140 no-suspect rape cases, said Ted Staples, who oversees that agency's 81,000-sample DNA database.

MANY UNSOLVED CRIMES

Chief Robert Stewart said SLED sent a letter in January 2002 to all police agencies, coroners and solicitors in South Carolina, seeking no-suspect DNA cases. His agents followed up with visits to law enforcement agencies in summer 2002.

Stewart said his agency's DNA lab could analyze more cold cases. But he stopped short of saying he was disappointed by the low response. "We're certainly open for business," he said.

There is plenty of unsolved violent crime in South Carolina.

Rape, for example, is one of the crimes for which DNA evidence usually is more readily available, compared to other types of crimes.

But, according to The State newspaper's analysis of SLED crime statistics from 1993 through 2002, there were 16,920 reported rapes statewide and only 6,431 arrests. (The data excludes 2001, when SLED did not compile arrest data.)

In contrast, the vast majority of murders were solved during that same period.

"It is a matter of priority," said Vicki Bourus, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. "(Rape) is just not seen as much of a crime as is homicide."

PROVIDING A BREAK

Submitting DNA samples to SLED's database doesn't guarantee an arrest, but supporters point to cases in which it gave investigators the break they needed.

SLED credits its database with solving the May 2002 rape of a 69-year-old woman in her home near USC in Columbia and the 1996 rape of a 76-year-old woman at her Darlington County home. Initially there was no suspect in either case.

In Aiken, Courtney, the investigator on Carpenter's case, said her murder likely would never have been solved without DNA.

Georgia required the suspect, Robert Atkins, to submit a DNA sample when he was arrested there in May 2002 for violating probation for stealing, Courtney said.

Aiken investigators had submitted 94 DNA samples to SLED after Carpenter's slaying, but there were no initial matches, Courtney said. The samples were uploaded to the FBI's database, which made the match after Georgia sent in Atkins' sample, he said.

Investigators, who had conducted more than 300 interviews and canvassed 500 homes, discovered Atkins, now awaiting a February trial, had delivered a package to Carpenter days before her killing, Courtney said.

"Up until we got the DNA hit on that fella, his name, his identity, had never come up," he said.

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